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N.C. wildfire creates visibility, health concerns

Unhealthy smoke from an eastern North Carolina wildfire has become so thick that it is causing visibility problems in the area around the blaze, officials said Sunday.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Unhealthy smoke from an eastern North Carolina wildfire has become so thick that it is causing visibility problems in the area around the blaze, officials said Sunday.

The National Weather Service issued a dense smoke advisory for places near the fire, saying visibility may shrink to one-quarter mile. Meanwhile, that smoke also triggered a Code Purple advisory from state air quality observers.

The air quality advisory urges people downrange of the smoke to limit outdoor activity and encourages those with respiratory problems to stay indoors. The state Division of Air Quality said the unhealthy air will likely spread to the north and east, covering Edenton, Elizabeth City, Kill Devil Hills, Manteo, Nags Head, Plymouth and Washington.

Monday won't be any better, the state said.

Firefighters used Sunday's stagnant conditions to improve containment lines around the fire that's burned in and around the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge.

Map: Progress of the fire

In the map below, the area of the fire is designated in red. Pushpins signal poor air quality reports, with the darker pins indicating reports of limited visibility due to the smoke in the air.

The North Carolina Forest Service said the fire hasn't burned more than the 41,000 acres, or more than 64 square miles, that was reported Saturday. But crews are still watching the weather for any gusty winds or lightning.

The Forest Service said workers will focus on protecting agricultural land on the southwest side of New Lake. The fire is still about 40 percent contained.

Dean McAlister, a spokesman at the incident command center for the fire, said crews were also preparing water pumps so that they could pull some 6 million gallons of water per hour from New Lake and Phelps Lake, dousing the perimeters and containment lines to prevent further spread. It's particularly important to soak the ground because the peat soils in the refuge can carry a smoldering fire under ground and under containment lines.

But McAlister said the water won't get rid of the smoke that has been traveling hundreds of miles and disturbing towns in all directions with each change of the wind.

"While we are hydrating the edges of this thing, the interior of this is going to be cooking for a long time unless we get a heavy rain," McAlister said. "And we're not talking about an inch, we're talking about significant inches."

North Carolina has already spent nearly $2.7 million fighting the fire, and 578 workers were supporting that effort Sunday. The fire has not caused any injures and has not burned any homes. The fire started June 1 from lightning strikes on private land.

Protect yourself from wildfire smoke

  • Reduce time outdoors. This can provide protection, especially in a tightly closed house where the air-conditioner can re-circulate air instead of bringing in outdoor air.
  • Reduce time engaged in outdoor physical activity. This can be effective in lowering the dose of inhaled air pollutants.
  • Reduce other sources of indoor air pollution that can emit the same pollutants found in wildfire smoke. Indoor sources such as burning cigarettes, gas, propane and wood-burning stoves and furnaces, and activities such as cooking, burning candles and incense and vacuuming can greatly increase the particle levels in a home and should be avoided when wildfire smoke is present.
(Source: National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion)

The state Division of Public Health lists the symptoms of smoke exposure as:

  • coughing
  • scratchy throat
  •  shortness of breath
  • irritated sinuses
  • chest pain
  • headaches
  • stinging eyes
  • runny nose
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a Web site devoted to wildfires and their effects can be on people and pets .